Hoping to give the public a better understanding of how her newly formed unit to investigate officer-involved shootings will work, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore announced that not every use of force case involving an officer will be presented to a grand jury.
“My goal is to give this community some assurance that these investigations do not just involve an examination by the police department, but also involve an independent evaluation by the district attorney,” Moore said in February.
The Civil Rights Division (CRD) will respond to an officer-involved shooting scene, observe an investigation and be around to ask questions about the handling of a case, taking an objective look to determine if an officer committed a crime. The unit will also respond to any ‘use of force’ case. Moore said the Austin Police Department’s standard Special Investigation’s Unit will still review cases.
The biggest change in the process is the determination on whether or not a case will go to a grand jury for review. At Wednesday’s news conference, Moore said after the CRD finishes its investigation, it will make a determination if there is evidence that the officer or officers committed a crime. If the CRD determines there is no evidence of a crime, the division will decline to prosecute the case. If there is sufficient evidence of a crime, the case will then be presented to a special grand jury.
“These changes have been adopted by me in order to expedite resolution of these investigations – and permit us to release information to the affected families to the families and public as soon as possible,” Moore said.”It will streamline things. And my hope is that it will also inspire the communities confidence that we are approaching this correctly.”
The DA’s Office says the special grand jury will only hear cases involving officer use of force. The director of the new division, Dexter Gilford, says the special grand jury will have more time to consider the facts in the case instead of trying to juggle dozens of cases that vary in scope.
Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday says it will help those officers still waiting on cases months, sometimes years later.
“The benefit for us is that we don’t have officers hanging out there for eight, nine, 10, 12, 13 months waiting for a grand jury,” Casaday said. “It can mess with them psychologically waiting that long, so we are in support of this.”
But some argue Moore’s new approach is just a political move to protect Austin officers.
“We cannot have police reform if you have a political DA saying ‘trust me.’ I mean that’s just not going to work, it never has worked. That’s why we have the Bill of Rights,” said Jim Harrington, Founder of Texas Civil Rights Project.
Harrington says Moore should bring in a prosecutor from outside the county, without any political ties to work independently on these cases.
“These have to be fully vetted, fully public, fully transparent prosecutions. And to say, ‘Well, I’m going to make it better by making it more discretionary,’ is going the opposite way,” Harrington said.
In order to be more transparent, Gilford says a public database will be created that will list all officer involved shootings and use of force cases that the division has reviewed. Starting in June or early July, the division will also conduct regular public forms to allow for the public to ask questions of the department.
There will also be more transparency when dealing with the victims’ families.
“We are creating a room, where the families can come in once a prosecutorial decision has been made. They can sit, they can view the evidence along with a victim witness counselor, they can view the investigation, all the reports, all the videos and photos so they can get that question answered about what happened to their loved one,” said Travis County prosecutor Laurie Drymalla.